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Caught in The Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind

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What is it like to be a preacher who can no longer believe the creed?

In confidential interviews, clergy reveal how their lives of service are overshadowed by hypocrisy, as they contemplate taking a leap from their faith. As religious leaders struggle to adapt to the new transparency of the information age, the phenomenon of non-believing clergy portends surprising developments in the future of religious belief.

243 pages, Kindle Edition

First published November 26, 2013

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About the author

Daniel C. Dennett

63 books2,620 followers
Daniel Clement Dennett III is a prominent philosopher whose research centers on philosophy of mind, science, and biology, particularly as they relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Dennett is a noted atheist, avid sailor, and advocate of the Brights movement.

Dennett received his B.A. in philosophy from Harvard University in 1963, where he was a student of W.V.O. Quine. In 1965, he received his D.Phil. from Christ Church, Oxford, where he studied under the ordinary language philosopher Gilbert Ryle.

Dennett gave the John Locke lectures at the University of Oxford in 1983, the Gavin David Young Lectures at Adelaide, Australia, in 1985, and the Tanner Lecture at Michigan in 1986, among many others. In 2001 he was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize, giving the Jean Nicod Lectures in Paris. He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1987. He was the co-founder (1985) and co-director of the Curricular Software Studio at Tufts University, and has helped to design museum exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston. He is a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 56 reviews
Profile Image for Stephie Williams.
382 reviews36 followers
December 1, 2016
A very fine book and for the most part very interesting. I've always liked Daniel Dennett's work and ideas, although I had never read anything by Linda Lascola, but that might be because she hadn't written any books before now.

I must say I felt for some of the ministers in the book. I kind of understand how hard it must be for them, but I do wish they could come out because I think that would really help other nonministers to shake the shackles of their beliefs and become atheist themselves.

I believe atheism is such a freeing view point.

There is one point I would like to comment on. One of the ministers said that he lost the arena in which to discuss ethics or morals because of what I strongly belief is a very wrong notion that the religion provides a good forum to talk about ethics. I Believe this to be very wrong. If anything I think religion, especially the monotheistic ones, stifles most debate about morality. It more often than not just dictates what it claims, very dubiously, about ethics.

Sorry about the mini rant, but I would recommend the book to anyone.
Profile Image for Ginger Griffin.
107 reviews4 followers
December 14, 2019
Book synopsis: Christian and Jewish clergy discover that the Holy Bible is just an anthology of ancient woo-woo. Cover-ups ensue.

Eventually, some give up looking for deeper meaning in _The Goat Herder's Guide to the Universe_* and defect to atheism (*credit to Seth Andrews for this description).

But they wonder about the colleagues they left behind, most of whom know the same things they know -- because seminaries (non-fundamentalist ones, anyway) require students to learn about Bible archaeology and history. Not to mention theology, where the dense obscurantism often puts post-modernists to shame. (One ex-Catholic priest says he didn't think much about the theology he'd been taught in seminary until he had to face questions from parishioners. "It wasn’t until I got to the parish giving these same answers that I realized, 'Boy, what bullshit!' There was a difference hearing myself give these answers to people who were genuinely asking. I felt like a fraud.")

How many clergy are closet non-believers? No one knows because the tacit policy is "don't ask, don't tell." Many seem to suspect their fellow clergy, but they don't feel free to share doubts among themselves (and certainly not with the people in the pews). The result? As one of the authors says about the clergy interviewed for this book, "In spite of their professional obligation to immerse themselves in the social world, or maybe because of it, they strike us as the loneliest people we have ever encountered."

Fortunately, doubting clergy can now contact The Clergy Project for support. It's an organization for religious professionals who no longer believe in the supernatural (confidentiality is strictly enforced, so there's minimal danger that members will be outed). The Clergy Project has grown to over 1000 members -- and most of them say they're only the tip of an iceberg of unbelief. 
Profile Image for Jason Barnum.
6 reviews
July 26, 2018
This was an excellent book! Especially good for those going through a faith crisis.
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,664 followers
December 28, 2018
Fascinating concept, but not quite sure about the execution. There are a lot of stitched together stories about people who have lost faith while serving in an ecclesiastical function. There wasn't enough reflection in between the stories or really any broader points beyond the difficulties and some of the freedoms involved in a loss of faith. I love Dennett's theoretical work and I guess I was hoping for more analysis. Still, I really enjoyed the book and found the voices of the people to be totally relatable.
Profile Image for Jo.
521 reviews10 followers
February 13, 2014
I found this book helpful and interesting, though shorter than I expected, it only took me a day to read, I am sure there is more could have been added, but I appreciated the methodology and the reflection offered. There was a genuine kindness in the tone of the book. The participants were given a compassionate uncensored space in which to share their difficult journey, and the many verbatim extracts from their interviews are absorbing and challenging. They will resonate for many clergy who find themselves questioning the very thing their livelihoods, relationships and identities depend upon. It is tough walking the line between integrity and necessity, wondering what kind of person that makes you. And it is hard to contemplate stepping away from people you love and a community where you know you are making a positive contribution.

I suppose the book is least understanding towards liberal Christians who embrace the myth and mystery of their faith without falling into literalism or exclusive dogma. I think there is a huge amount of creative scope for liberal clergy to help build mutually supportive and outward looking communities around shared values and spiritual stories. But I do tend to share a deep frustration with those clergy who continue to use all the traditional religious language, assuming that people who walk into their churches will all somehow know that nothing means what it sounds like it means, and they will not be harmed by it. That does my head in!! I spent many years trying to remove language of unworthiness, shame, guilt, blame, exclusion, dominating power and anything 'supernatural' (whatever that means) from the services I led, but it is impossible at the end of the day to prevent people from still hearing what they think they know the church believes, if that is where they are. I found it exasperating constantly to be associated with views I found abhorrent. I feel very liberated these days, I can weigh up my own thoughts and am not required to deliver them to anyone in acceptable parcels.
Profile Image for Darren.
97 reviews5 followers
November 14, 2016
This book really opened my eyes to the incredible turmoil that disenchanted clergy endure when emancipated from their faith. I can't imagine what it is like to immerse yourself into a life's work where friends and family define you by your role in proselytising a belief that you no longer hold true. Living that kind of lie can be easy for some, excruciatingly disingenuous for others. After reading this book it becomes blatantly obvious that this is an extremely important topic that has not received much acknowledgement or support... until now.

With "The Clergy Project", Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola are providing a much needed service, with an anonymous website where religious leaders in various stages of questioning their faith can share feelings and stories with others going through similar doubts. The respect and compassion that resonates throughout the pages of 'Caught in The Pulpit' tell personal stories of those theists who have discovered through their theological studies and life experiences that they no longer belief in the literal word of God, and secretly seek a way to relieve themselves of the cognitive dissonance that stems from acting out a life that they no longer believe is true. It finishes with a nice touch; a personal account from each author on how they came to be involved with the project.

"Are you a religious professional who no longer holds to supernatural beliefs? Have you remained in vocational ministry, secretly hiding away your non-belief? Are you struggling over where to go from here with your life and career? Welcome to The Clergy Project."
Profile Image for John.
325 reviews8 followers
December 29, 2013
I was surprised at how interesting I found this book by Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola. Two-thirds of the text reports verbatim responses from the study participants with the balance being the authors' explanation and commentary. The authors are careful in the preface to disclaim scientific validity due to the relatively small sample size (about three dozen).
Most of the respondents were interesting - some of their stories were fascinating - and I was utterly disgusted by the significant number who'd chosen to stay in the pastorate until retirement without believing what they were preaching and teaching. The reasoning was all some version of 'I'm too invested in my pension plan to stop now.'
The clergy participants in the study covered the spectrum of Christian ministry - liberal to literal - Catholic, Mormon, Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Church of Christ, Episcopal, Seventh Day, Lutheran, Presbyterian. . The seeds of doubt were all planted in seminary and if you aren't familiar with Bible history or Biblical criticism I'd suggest starting with Bart Ehrman or Bishop John Shelby Song.
Profile Image for Mike Doyle.
44 reviews25 followers
June 5, 2020
Does anybody else skip writing reviews to spend more time reading? (this is my 105th book read of the year and first review) I am so very guilty of that, and here is my attempt to change my habits.

This book wasn’t what I was expecting from one of the touted “New Atheists”, Daniel Dennett. The books subtitle “Leaving Belief Behind” really gave the message that it was along the lines of Richard Dawkins “The God Delusion” Or Dennett’s own “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”. (Actually, as a side note, I have read both lately, and found that the Dawkins offering is a whole lot more mocking in tone than I remembered, having listened to the audio book read by the author, the vitriolic and bitter tone is quite surprising).

This offering, although similar in theme (rejection of supernatural religious claims in the Bible, or at minimum the facts that biblical criticism/scholarship have brought to light such as the virgin/maiden translation) is much more of a personal insight into the feelings of anxiety and doubt in faith by members of various congregations. Most of the text is excerpts of interviews with the doubting/disbelieving clergy themselves, and it is interesting, as I had never considered the position of someone preaching what they don’t believe.

The book also brings up some interesting tangential subjects such as when the clergy after finishing seminary are given an opportunity to preach to their congregations, and they start to introduce the types of questions or debates they had in school (eg literal vs symbolic readings of certain parts of the bible, or that the bible wasn’t literally the word of god, but was a written by people of a certain age and cultural tradition). It turns out people don’t want to hear debate or discuss why they believe what they believe.

I can see from the amount of reviews/ratings this book has compared to Dennett’s more high profile offerings it hasn’t been as widely read, but it is worth reading if you get the chance, as it offers an interesting insight into the impact of reason and evolution of thought connected to modern religion, by people directly involved in its spread and propagation.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,166 reviews23 followers
February 28, 2014
It's amazing to learn that there's actually a website called the clergy project which is a gathering point for clergy members (priests, pastors, ministers, rabbis, etc.) who no longer believe in God – many of whom are still pastoring their congregations but are afraid to come out as atheists because they will lose income, family, prestige, friends, etc. This book focuses on interviews with a number of these clergy members and I like how it had a wide sample with many different Orthodox, Catholic and Christian denominations and even one Rabbi, and they all dealt with their loss of faith differently. Some of them were still in ministry, some had retired, some had quit, and they were all from different walks of life. There were also several seminary professors who were interviewed and a seminary student or 2 who dropped out and felt like they had "dodged a bullet." It seemed that education, in the form of reading material that contradicted or criticized Christianity is what led these people away from their faith, they started out wanting to learn about atheism or different belief systems, often in order to defend their faith from them, and they ended up being convinced by them. Another number of them started questioning when they could not explain the "unanswerable questions" such as "why do bad things happen to good people" to grieving parishioners, etc. Others were disillusioned actually in the seminary, when they were taught biblical history and archaeology and realize that the Bible was not written in the way they thought it was or did not meet what they thought it did. This was a really good book, though was a little slow at times, it had a lot of interesting perspective in it. I can't imagine being the pastor of a large church whose congregation did not know that I was an atheist or agnostic (or in some cases, just a believer in a kind of nebulous, impersonal force that they call God)
Profile Image for Melissa.
39 reviews2 followers
January 21, 2014
The write-up of the follow-up study by Dan Dennett and Linda LaScola related to The Clergy Project. Thirty clergy/seminary professors/students who have either lost their faith completely or have changed aspects of their religious thought talk about their experiences going through such monumental personal change while undertaking the responsibility of leading their congregations/classrooms. The personal stories are illuminating and Dennett's philosophical, psychological, and sociological interjections are enlightening. How many clergy are teaching congregations without believing what they are saying, but unable to change jobs or move to another church because of their positions? How do they deal with this problem, morally and mentally? Can resources be developed to help them (such as the Clergy Project's private web page, where clergy can discuss their doubts/changes anonymously)? It's a worthwhile investigation.
Profile Image for Jeff Kim.
124 reviews4 followers
December 7, 2020
This book is an eye opener as to the plight faced by some religious leaders. This could be a pastor or a priest or a bishop who joins the seminary with noble intentions of spreading the gospel. However some may change their world view in the seminary, based on the new information that they are learning about they Bible. They lose their faith because their new acquired knowledge goes contrary to what they were taught in Sunday school. Some are brave enough to drop out of school, while some persevere on the hope that everything will make sense with time.

These people live their lives in misery, caught between a rock and hard place. The rock is a life of lies, living in cognitive dissonance, preaching what you don't believe at all every Sunday and living with fear that they may be found out. The hard place is losing the benefits associated with being a church leader - source of livelihood from the church, a sense of community, lost friendships, the respect accorded to religious leaders etc. You are doomed in every which way which is sad.

The book touches on the differences and commonalities between the fundamental/literal and the liberal faiths and how they despise each other 🤦‍♂️etc.

It could be a 5 star book, but for some reasons I can't really put a finger to, I rate the book 3 stars. Not sure if it is the vocabulary of the book, the sentence structure, the heavy dosage of language used in religious circles and philosophy or professor Dennett's vocabulary. Either way I struggled for logical flow of information on some sections. Some content went over my head - I felt like I was reading something way above my pay grade 😂😂. I recon this could be different for different people.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Philemon -.
173 reviews6 followers
November 7, 2022
Despite direction by Daniel Dennett and a forward by Richard Dawkins, this is a surprisingly even-handed collection of interview excerpts from clergy of all denominations who have experienced loss of faith in God. The interviewees' candor in exposing this taboo (for clergy) subject -- it was the first time many of them had talked to anyone about it -- is amazing, affecting, and enlightening.
Profile Image for Susan Rainwater.
98 reviews
January 11, 2021
In the end, Dennett seems to want to preserve the liberal church as a sort of combination social club and do-gooder organization, with the Bible being a sort of inspirational mythology. Because the book focuses entirely on the clergy, it does not examine how the folks in the pews feel about this. Having, as a child, attended a church that took this approach, I know first hand how empty the "be good" approach is. So, no, I don't think Dennett's wishful thinking makes sense.

It does seem to me that the seminaries themselves could fix some of the problems Dennett is describing with two measures.

First, treat seminary as a post-graduate program, requiring that the students first get an undergraduate degree in something else. Many of the disillusioned clergy seem to have gone from high school straight to seminary with no real academic background. Getting a degree in social work, psychology, or history might be a good place to start, and would give the person something to fall back on. It would also give them the tools to deal with the material being presented in seminary.

Second, as with psychology, require that the candidate undergo a year of psychotherapy before entering seminary, or concurrent to their first year. If the clergy is in a position where they can't be honest with anyone about what they believe, here's a way to change that.

I do think, from a listening point of view, that the "you knows" could have been excised from a lot of the quoted material without doing harm to the quotes.
Profile Image for Richard.
148 reviews
September 19, 2017
This book surprised me. I liked it so much that when I was done I immediately went back and re-read it again. [Contrast that with Dennett's "Breaking the Spell", which frustrated me with its "all questions, no answers" format... but I guess that's how philosophy works.].

I was raised in Mormonism, which has unpaid lay clergy at the local level. Mormon high school and college students also go through a watered-down version of theological seminary (they actually call is Seminary at the HS level and Institute of Religion at the college level - but it is almost 100% faith-promoting. Virtual nothing controversial, like biblical textural criticism, is ever presented. Certainly nothing negative about the Mormon church is ever presented in Seminary/Institute. Also, LDS Seminary and Institute teachers are not independent educators -- they are hired by, trained by, and paid by the LDS church.)

Because of that feature of Mormonism (Seminary/Institute in HS and college & serving in lay clerical roles in my local congregation), I experienced a *tremendous* amount of empathy with the professional clergy who shared their faith journeys in this book.
Profile Image for Everton Patterson.
56 reviews6 followers
February 3, 2014
I have often wondered what happens if a member of the clergy lost faith, or a politician loses belief in their party's ideology. Do they continue to pretend and spout the same doctrines or would they feel compelled to come clean, and what does that imply as far as their social life and income, because it is a job after all. This book describes a survey of several current and former members of Christian and Jewish clergy who have lost their faith. It runs the gamut from the seminary student who quit on the first day of class, to some pastors who have decided to continue in the ministry because they are so close to retirement. Not a fun read but interesting. It serves to confirm something I have always suspected, and I do suspect that there are many more than the few that were involved in this study. The participants are allowed to speak in their own words and explain how and why they lost their faith, and the difficult situation they find themselves in, including the aforementioned social and income considerations.
Profile Image for Adam.
202 reviews9 followers
September 18, 2015
A fairly bland look at various religious leaders who have lost their faith. Though the work that Dennett and others are doing is worthwhile, it doesn't lend itself to a terribly compelling book. The insight that these people give is somewhat limited and I found to be of little interest. The foreword by Richard Dawkins makes me think I'd be better off reading one of his books on the subject. As the second book by Dennett I've read I just don't have much confidence in what he says. His arguments are not convincing enough to make me want to explore any more thoughts he may have on the issue.

Religious people interested in why people who once believed what they do but don't any longer may find interest in some of the rationales provided in these pages. Similarly people who have lost their faith may appreciate seeing how others did the same. As someone who never had a particularly strong faith, didn't go through a similar process and doesn't need to be convinced of the problems with organized religion, this just wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Andrej Drapal.
Author 4 books13 followers
June 29, 2020
As an avid reader of Richard Dawkins early work and almost all work of Daniel Dennet, I was deeply disturbed by this book. The presupposition is that faith is the only tie that links clergy to their institutions. should that be true, religion would really be exceptional, but is not. Faith is universal presupposition for all literally professions - but only one of. A scientist can lose faith in science, a doctor in medicine and so on. Each profession with a mission at least partially rests on faith.
Placing a long list of those that lost faith in their religion makes no sense though because it would be a piece of news if no one would lose faith.
What I was really disturbed about in this book is the fact, that Dan Dennett is still developing memetics (while Richard Dawkins totally abandoned a field that he "discovered" back in 1976) and at the same time does not see the validity of religion through his own theory. If you are true memologist you can not but understand the complexity and you can never take reductionism as holding any truth. Dennet play here linear logic based on reductionism of science. And that is pathetic for a person that gave us so many excellent insights into memetics, neuroscience and philosophy.
39 reviews
November 1, 2021
Kind of a weird choice for me, but I've been reading some Daniel Dennett for class and this book caught my eye as an interesting read.
It was certainly interesting and compelling, and very sad. It's a very illuminating journey behind the very people who preach to the masses having a lack of faith themselves, and very illustrative of how contemporary organized religion works.
Maybe most interesting is looking at "liberal" churches and synagogues, who try to rectify the knowledge that Biblical stories are clearly not true while also still holding on to faith. It made me realize this was exactly what my Synagogue tried to do growing up, acknowledging evolution while still worshiping God. But it's kind of an untenable solution: trying to have your cake and eat it too is contradictory, no matter how well-meaning it is.
Profile Image for Abner Huertas.
Author 7 books1 follower
May 29, 2017
What's like for a preacher, priest or someone in the clergy to stop believing and to keep on her duties?

The Clergy Project made an incredible study among people in the clergy who stop believing. They found out the reasons of they disbelief, why they kept in the culprit, and what are they feelings about it.

There are many pastors and priest in culprits that don't believe, but they keep in there because they don't know what else to do. They suffer from cognitive dissonance when preaching something they think isn't true.

One thing is clear about these people, they have deep contradictory feelings about it.

A recommended book.
Profile Image for Lady Brainsample.
500 reviews54 followers
February 2, 2018
Mixed feelings about this book. The actual unedited interview parts were great, but the editorializing of the authors of the studies was not that great. I didn't realize before picking up the book that this was about a study conducted by some very vocal atheists.
As a believer, it is disconcerting that many of the respondents said that even many of those at seminary teaching them didn't believe what they were then going out and preaching to their congregations.
Would have also liked to have seen at least one evangelical in there, but since it was voluntary and self-selecting, can't blame the authors.
Profile Image for Becki.
403 reviews13 followers
January 7, 2021
Interesting study of dozens of pastors and religious leaders who self identify as "non-believers" while still in the pulpit. (This book is a follow-up to the earlier study.)

I appreciated the variety and nuance of this study. The pastors and leaders crossed a wide range of denominations, (including Jewish, pentecostal, Mormon, etc) that run the gamut from literal to liberal viewpoints.

Some of those studied were in agony over the double life that they lived, others felt like they could continue to "make change from the inside". All struggled with believing they weren't being true to themselves.

An interesting look into a phenomenon much more common than many realize.
Profile Image for Daniel.
730 reviews8 followers
February 16, 2018
Interesting book that I didn't have the patience to finish. Conversations with many preachers who either stopped believing but kept their positions or left the church entirely. What was surprising was the number of seminary teachers who don't believe and are teaching would-be preachers about nuance and metaphor, while the seminary students have never considered the fact that there might be something other than black and white. Interesting, especially for the questioner.
77 reviews4 followers
August 5, 2019
Enlightening read. Religious, spiritual and non-religious alike could all read this book and take away something valuable - humanizing the clergy. As an ex-Evangelical this was both heart wrenching (so many clergy unable to truly process the questions leading to and from deconversion) and heart-warming (so many clergy wanting to simply make the world a better place and being brave enough to leave behind harmful aspects of supernaturalism). Definitely worthwhile and an easy read.
22 reviews1 follower
May 21, 2017
Some of the stories from this book could have been taken directly from my own struggle with faith. I think it should stand to show just how human the people behind the pulpit are. If you are religious and go to church regularly, there is a decent chance that the man who stands before you, preaching from the Bible, is actually a nonbeliever.
Profile Image for Richard Worden.
26 reviews
January 9, 2018
The book describes the journey of a number of theologically/biblically trained men and women whose education did not end with graduation or leaving a theological college. Significant intellectual and spiritual growth took place in ministry or in para-religious work producing one crisis of faith after another. No mention is made of James Fowler's Stages of Faith which might have helped.
Profile Image for Stephanie R..
169 reviews
November 11, 2022
This gave me a lot to think about. It's so sad that when pastors are having a crisis of faith, there's nobody they can talk to about it, not even their confessor. And they usually can't find another job. There are a lot of great book recommendations in here.
23 reviews
February 27, 2018
i scanned this book. Interesting, predicable.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
191 reviews1 follower
May 9, 2018
The thoughts and feelings of clergy caught between paying lip service to dogma and modern theology. This book gives insight to the struggle of the so called "atheist clergy".
23 reviews
November 6, 2018
Excellent, fascinating. The interviews kept me enthralled, and Dennett's analysis was insightful. I didn't want this book to end. Thank god for the Clergy Project.
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